Alex BUTLER and Kevin MILLS
Some of Abbotsford’s homeless residents have returned to the “Happy Tree” – but not everyone is happy about the relocation of the Gladys Avenue homeless camp.
The tree – located across from the Salvation Army – was the centre of a controversy in June after city crews dumped manure on the site in an apparent effort to deter the homeless.
Occupants moved down the road and the camp grew – bringing in tents, tarps and a rapidly growing mess – until it was deemed a health hazard by the Fraser Health Authority (FHA). Last week the site was issued a 48-hour eviction notice, although no residents were forcibly removed.
Two pickup trucks from 5 and 2 Ministries, a local organization that advocates for the homeless, were loaded with possessions and driven up the road about 75 metres back to the Happy Tree.
“The circular motion of this move is indicative of the progress that has been made with the homeless issue: zero,” said Jesse Wegenast of 5 and 2, adding that the people will likely stay until they are moved again.
City crews blocked off the old camp and a private contractor was called in to clean up, at a cost of approximately $6,000.
Mayor Bruce Banman was present for the move and said his goal was for the city to be respectful and make the cleanup as non-traumatic as possible.
The decision to close the camp was made in consultation with service groups, who agreed the site had become a health hazard. Banman said “there is a new level of co-operation and understanding” surrounding camp closures that he said he believes will continue as the organizations work together towards solutions.
He said he wasn’t surprised the camp merely shifted to its old location, acknowledging that “the most likely place for them to move was back to the Happy Tree. “
Banman said the continued habitation on Gladys Avenue will not address the true issues of homelessness, or the negative impact the camps have on neighbours in the area.
“I feel for the neighbours … They can’t sell their homes, businesses in the area are having trouble leasing properties because, unfortunately, if you had a choice, it wouldn’t be the first.”
Another homeless camp on Montvue Avenue – located on land owned by Abbotsford Community Services (ACS), where the organization has proposed to build a 20-unit supportive housing facility for homeless men – is also in the process of clearing out.
But Rod Santiago, executive director of ACS, said members of the police, city bylaw staff and service groups are working together to find long-term solutions for residents of the site.
Santiago said about seven people were living there, raising concern from neighbours and businesses, which were understanding about allowing for a period of time to help find individual solutions for the homeless residents.
The area has been fenced off and a deadline has been set for Wednesday to have the site vacated.
Santiago said that by Monday (yesterday) afternoon, the last couple on the site would hopefully be set up in a permanent apartment, leaving one final individual on the site until a solution can be found.
“It requires more time and patience from the parties involved, but in the end, it actually provides a solution rather than moving people 75 metres down the road.”
Though the city is working towards solutions, Banman said the question on how to solve homelessness is not unique to Abbotsford, and not solely a municipal issue.
Banman said part of the solution may have to come from higher political sources like the provincial and federal governments, as the city lacks the resources and expertise to deal with all aspects of the issue. Banman said another part of the problem is addressing issues of mental health, which falls under the mandate of the FHA.
Banman said that will be addressed at this week’s meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM), which he is attending. He added that Abbotsford is not the only community looking for solutions to such problems.
Local politicians from communities such as Maple Ridge and Delta have asked the UBCM to support them in calls for new centres for mental health and addiction, and for the reopening of the Riverview mental hospital in Coquitlam as a centre for mental health care.
Banman said he plans to talk with provincial ministers as well as mayors of others communities to learn about different approaches to homelessness.
He said no community has found a perfect solution for solving homelessness, and finding an appropriate approach for Abbotsford will take time.
“Just because we are under the limelight doesn’t mean we should jump at the first idea.”